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September 19, 2013

Breaking Down Male Conditioning: Learning To Cry Again

snowdropsWhen I was a kid, I quickly learnt that boys were not supposed to cry. Or if we did, it was something shameful to be suppressed or hidden as soon as possible.

(Note to new readers: I’m a transgender woman and was brought up as a boy).

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Looking at male kids nowadays, I feel acutely aware of how their joyful and emotional nature would be seen as a sign of gender deviance (probable label: “gay”) if they were adults. I guess people give them a certain amount of license because they are children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t quickly put in their place. “Boys don’t cry”. “Don’t be such a pansy”. And so on.

So I had troubles crying for a very long time. At some point, I decided that not being able to cry was a problem, and I tried to make myself cry when I thought I needed it.

It’s funny, but a lot of the times when I forced myself to cry I ended up feeling worse afterwards. It’s like the sadness would linger in my body for hours afterwards and I’d feel groggy and terrible.

I don’t know whether this odd experience had something to do with my transgenderism. It’s a fact that female hormones make you cry more, and male hormones make you cry less – I cry about twice as much nowadays that I’m on female hormones.

As a transgender woman, my brain expects my body and my hormones to be female, which is why many times in my life I thought I “should” be able to cry or just dry sobbed without letting any tears out. Nowadays, as a direct result of hormones, I no longer have this feeling of “wrongness” from not being able to cry as much as I feel I “should” be able to.

So women really do cry more than men, and I believe part of that is intrinsic to our genders. But I also believe part of that really is not.

The Nature Of Gendered Social Conditioning

I’ve found that social conditioning regarding gender works to reinforce existing patterns. Testosterone makes people feel more competitive, which is why boys are taught they should be competitive and are told they are wimps if they don’t want to be. Estrogen lowers sex drive, which is why women are taught they shouldn’t have much sex and are told they are sluts if they do.

So why does gendered social conditioning even exist? Well, I think it serves two purposes: one, it serves to exaggerate the differences between the binary genders, and two, it serves to eliminate natural variation. Both of these help reinforce the separation between the genders, and that in turn enables patriarchical structures where men are above women.

This is because if there was no separation between genders, hierarchy would be impossible. This also explains why male-assigned people are punished so disproportionately much more for breaking gender norms: as the ones with the most to gain from patriarchy, it is men’s duty to do the greater work in holding gender separation in place.

Being Able To Cry As A Man

Back to crying. Male hormones and male intrinsic genders cause men to cry less than women. But society attempts to exaggerate this tendency, making it a shameful thing for a man to even cry at all.

Men need to challenge this tendency. After all, it contributes to the separation between genders, the feeling of alienation men have from women which in turn allows them to objectify, exploit and subjugate them. (Sound harsh? Well, some men are better than others, but most have a huge blind spot regarding these systems and often think they are better than they are. I’ve met very few men who truly “get it”).

But moreover, it’s just unhealthy not to cry when you need to, and unhealthy to feel shame about anything that is natural to you.

When you need to cry but don’t, that feeling stays bottled up in you. Sadness, frustration and grief lingers much longer, and perhaps never entirely goes away, returning to you again and again whenever something triggers you.

Be Proud To Be Able To Cry

So try saying this to yourself: “I am a man and I am PROUD to be able to express my emotions and to cry when I need to. Crying is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of STRENGTH, the strength to do what is right in the face of overwhelming social pressure.”

When you need to cry, let yourself do so. If someone criticises you for crying, remember that you no longer identify with their criticism, and that you see things in a different way. You can challenge them, or not, as you see fit. In the long term, try to surround yourself with people who understand and accept you for who you are, and who are open to unconventional expressions of masculinity.

Shame About Crying

I am unsure how much of my frustration with my male conditioning had to do with the oppressiveness of the conditioning itself, and how much of it had to do with the fact that I was a woman and not a man. But I do think that the amount I felt able to cry was unhealthy for anyone.

And if shame was needed to hold this norm in line, it can’t have been good. I think shame is worthless and destructive in and of itself; and I think any structure that needs shame in order to keep existing is unnatural and wrong.

Perhaps if you are unsure about how much you naturally need to cry, just work on the shame. When crying no longer causes you shame, then I think it’s fair to say you’ve succeeded in smashing this one little bit of socially conditioned (and patriarchical) oppression.

How I Learnt To Cry

Over quite a few years I learnt to be able to cry again, before I even knew I was a woman. My strategy was to try and break through my barriers to crying and to cry when I thought I needed it. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to “dissolve” the barriers somehow rather than push through them; forcing myself to cry felt violent in a way, kind of the return swing of a pendulum and not entirely a real mark of progress.

But letting myself cry and being deliberate about crying did help me learn to feel a bit less shame about it, which I think is what helped most. I learnt to have an identity as man who could cry.

Later, I learnt I was really a woman. As this identity shift took hold, I became able to cry quite a bit more easily. I think this means that I didn’t fully complete my inner work; I simply bypassed the shame by seeing myself as a woman and knowing that that particular social convention didn’t apply to me anymore.

So, I’m sorry: there is a part of this journey that I didn’t complete, and that part is one I can’t help you with. But perhaps the beginning of my journey can serve as some inspiration to you.

To those who think that the fact that women cry more is entirely constructed, it’s interesting to note that I had a shift towards crying more at the beginning of identifying as a woman (suggesting social construction) and yet another shift once I started hormones (suggesting a biological basis).

Compared to just before hormones, I cry about twice as much now. I also get a much larger volume of tears than I ever had, even compared to when I cried really hard; it’s like my face is getting a rinse. Finally, I notice the experience is more “clean” somehow: the sadness doesn’t linger and I often have a rather refreshing, slightly euphoric feeling afterwards as if I had been cleaned out from the inside somehow.

I believe men must experience crying in a different way, and I’m not entirely sure how it works for them. All I can say is, I leave this exploration up to you.

And please do comment or reply with a blog post if you find out something interesting!



How To Be A Man (Or A Woman)

Breaking Down Male Social Conditioning: A Self-Help Guide To Ending Rape Culture

Male Intimacy


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  1. Albalida says:

    This reminds me of a post I re-discovered recently about Situational and Relative Privilege. When it comes to the freedom to express emotion, women have situational privilege, and perhaps pre-pubescent boys have relative privilege (depending on the patriarchal intensity of the environment in which they’re raised) over post-pubescent men when it comes to shedding tears. That is, boys are expected to grow out of it much sooner than girls… but, left without this conditioning, I don’t believe that the majority of men and women truly would have “grown out of” the compulsion/need/habit of crying at different stages of life anyway.

    I mean, you also brought up sex drive as correlated with biological sex. If you don’t want orgasms as much or as often now as you did before hormone therapy, then you don’t. With my own body, it’s difficult for me to imagine (being cis-woman) having a higher or more intense sex drive, social conditioning and pop-sci body chemistry be damned, I have been insatiable from an (overtly) unconventionally young age… and it seems like a few older cultures had no popular central concept of “blue balls”; “stiff clit” maybe?

    I’m also considering the impact of being free to cry. I get the impression that women are allowed to (I don’t say “free to” for the following reasons) cry at the cost of valuing the emotions we express. Like, women cry– it’s what we do, at the drop of a hat, like babies. What’s it about this time? Modulate the care– women are always crying about something! If a man crying is acceptable at all, it’s because it’s an intensely tremendously important event that deserves serious consideration… And that’s why it’s really probably best to disregard social conditioning as much as humanely possible, because it will invariably loop back into some sort of trap like that. I agree that everyone should cry if they feel like, don’t if they don’t. Thank you for publishing this entry.

    • Sophia Gubb says:

      Re: sex drive, I’m afraid I’m not just reporting on my own experience: pretty much everyone who switches hormones one way or another reports this. The relative change varies, and a small number of people report little or no change, but I’ve never heard of anyone e.g. having more sex drive while on estrogen.

      If you have so much sex drive while on estrogen, then all I can say is be careful if you ever feel the need to go on testosterone!! 🙂

  2. Colin G says:

    I enjoyed the article but and alot of it really rings true. I am a man who is trying to learn to let myself cry. That’s how I came across this article. I know I need to but when I do it feels really forced. Any more advice on how you learned to let yourself?

  3. kevin says:

    I found this blog by searching about why I am unable to cry no matter how much it burns inside. It also just reminded me of an upworthy post I saw a year or so ago about your very topic.

  4. Vika K. says:

    Am a girl, 29, still learning to cry, again and again…

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